An insider’s look at ArtFields, a revolutionary S.C. arts festival founded by a billionaire

The annual ArtFields exhibition on April 20-28 will bring serious cultural cred—and crowds—to a small South Carolina town.

 Everyone’s from somewhere. Darla Moore—billionaire investment banker, philanthropist, and the first woman to grace the cover of Fortune magazine—is from Lake City, S.C.

It’s a spot I’d known only as one of the hard-luck towns I drive through to get to Pawleys Island.

But six years ago, Moore, the daughter of a cotton and tobacco farmer, helped start something extraordinary in that pin dot of a town: an annual nine-day art exhibition that showcases Southeastern artists from 12 states.

The ArtFields website calls the $120,000 in prize money “life changing” for artists. And the event certainly has been life changing for its host city.

Don’t think of this as an arts festival, says Wim Roefs, artistic director for the Lake City Creative Alliance. “This isn’t the place to just buy pretty pictures of magnolias and tobacco barns—even though you might see some of that here, if it’s well-executed,” he says. “This is serious art, and much of it is cutting edge.”

Museum curators, and gallerists are among the 20,000 visitors who attend each year. They come in search of emerging talent.

The artistic mediums—sculpture, jewelry, photography, ceramics—and their subject matter are wide ranging (I saw stunning paintings depicting Alzheimer’s and a compulsive eating disorder).

The prices also run the gamut. In 2017, Barbara Grant’s primitive “South Carolina Agriculture” was available for $80. Meanwhile, Frank Hyder’s installation of giant, inflatable, colorful faces—which looked like a crazy, contemporary tribute to the heads at Easter Island—could’ve been yours for between $6,000 and $12,000.

Frank Hyder’s installation of giant, inflatable, colorful faces ranged from $6,000 to $12,000.


Banks, boutiques, and barbershops


Nearly the entire town takes part, as its no small feat to display the more than 400 works of art selected by an expert panel. Banks, boutiques, and barbershops become pop-up galleries. The library showcases a number of paintings, as you might expect. But so does the town’s tanning salon. Roefs cautions visitors not to take the art less seriously because it’s hanging in Merle Norman: “The fact that part of this exhibition takes place in businesses and stores does not negate the caliber of the art,” he says.

Last April, I walked into a mattress outlet—one of about 40 makeshift galleries.

“Where ya from?” the owner asked.

“Charlotte,” I replied.

“Well, if you’re staying at the Inn at the Crossroads tonight, you’ll be sleeping on one of my mattresses.”

In fact, I was staying at the Darla Moore Foundation-supported inn, just across Main Street from the mattress store. It’s a boutique hotel with original art in the lobby and a fine-dining restaurant. Dinner options during my visit to Crossroads on Main included quail stuffed with truffled cornbread and mushrooms, duck breast roasted with honey, and chamomile and Beef Wellington.


Renewed civic pride


The townspeople—both upper crust and working class, black and white, old and young—serve as unofficial cultural ambassadors during ArtFields.

Last year, at the biggest venue in town, the former tobacco warehouse known as the Ragsdale Old Building (The ROB, for short), a resident greeted me at the front door. She was eager to know where I was from (I’m telling you: Residents are ecstatic to welcome tourists) and what I thought of Lake City. She said the festival meant so much to her that she gave up overtime pay just to volunteer.

There’s more than visual art to ArtFields. Workshops, live music, a plein air painting contest and “Arts + Drafts” (where visitors can sample more than 40 regional craft beers) are all part of the fun. But the town is more than its art show.

Antique shops, boutiques, bakeries, and restaurants have upped their game since Lake City became a destination. Don’t miss the town’s tribute to its other most famous native: astronaut Ron McNair. The former library houses a center that honors the physicist who died during the Space Shuttle Challenger launch.

The city aims to be an arts hub—and not just for nine days each April. During this year’s event, a new 5,500-square-foot space will open on Sauls Street. The still-unnamed building will house two galleries that will be open year-round. Roefs says it will be the largest art center in South Carolina. (An art center differs from a museum in that it doesn’t have a permanent collection.)

In addition to ArtFields and The Inn at the Crossroads, the Darla Moore Foundation also helps support Florence Darlington Technical College, Moore Farms Botanical Garden, and Florence School District #3.

The goal, says Darla Moore Foundation President and CEO Marion Fowler, III (also a Lake City doctor and lawyer), is to “elevate the educational and economic standards” of the area.

And it’s done that. Moore money is likely behind nearly everything good that’s happening in her hometown—a place that could’ve become another forgotten crossroads.

But art, Lake City residents now know, can bring status. And salvation.


Want to go?

ArtFields will run from April 20-28 in Lake City, S.C. Visit artfieldssc.org for more information on the annual nine-day art exhibition. Staying overnight? Consider making reservations at The Inn at the Crossroads, theinnatthecrossroads.com

 

 

 

Fred Salley Photography